Monday, January 16, 2012

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu is a novel about a time machine repairman (named Charles Yu) who ran into a future version of himself, and then this future version gave the younger Charles Yu a book that Yu will have written at some point in the future called How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe.  Oh, and the younger Yu shoots his future self in the stomach during this meeting out of panic, sticking him in a time loop and giving him a limited amount of time to live before he becomes the older version of himself and gets shot.

I’ll give you a second to think about that.

I didn’t really know much about this book going in, and I’m not really sure that I know all that more coming out.  The “Science Fictional Universe” in question is a small and incomplete universe currently owned and operated by Time Warner Time (a division of Google) where everyone apparently goes around in a state of existential despair most of the time.  The original creators of the universe ran out of money and the eventual build-out was done on the cheap.  Another possible solution for the problem of evil, I guess.

This book has a lot of SF elements, but on the whole I’d say that it generally aims for and usually succeeds being more of a straight literary fiction work.  The fictional Yu’s use of a time machine is more of a metaphor than a serious examination of time travel.  In fact, the book that I would most compare this to would be The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, only done for dramatic purposes rather than comedy.  In HGTTG, Douglas Adams used comedic sociopathy pretty frequently, and in this one, Yu uses it to create despair.  For instance there’s the fictional Yu’s encounter with a lonely and out-of-date sexbot, who wants some money so that she can buy herself for a while, or when the fictional Yu tells his software program boss that he doesn’t actually have a wife and kids and they’ll never be able to hang out after work.

I have a lot of respect for this work but somewhat ambiguous personal feelings about it.  It’s exceptionally well written and filled with a lot of dark comedy, so that’s good, but where I’ll give the real Yu high marks is in his command of tone.  He sets the stage right from the beginning about how he wants the book to read, and everything flows out of that.  That stuff with the sexbot could be played as drama or as comedy, and Yu allows you to see the humor in it while still playing it totally seriously.  I wouldn’t really expect such great command of the non-textual elements of a novel like this from a first-time author.

Now, at the same time, the title of the book – How to Live Safely – has a double meaning in that “Living Safely” can mean either overcoming risk or simply avoiding it.  The time travel elements are used to drive home, repeatedly and not especially in a subtle fashion, how people dwell on their past and avoid taking risks.  You’re sitting there wasting your life, the book tells you, and you don’t really have a lot of choice about it.  From the fictional Yu’s mother, who has retired into reliving a single hour of dinnertime (because she couldn't afford the higher-priced packages allowing her to repeatedly relive an entire day or longer), to the fictional Yu who spends as much time as possible in his time machine avoiding having to help people go to the worst days of their lives over and over again, every single person in this novel is running away from something while going forward one second per second.

So when I say that I have mixed feelings about it it’s because the novel is highly effective at creating emotions, but that mostly this book made me feel really crappy about myself.  If that’s what the real Yu was striving for, then success!  If not, then channel your obvious powers for good next time, man.

Monday, January 9, 2012

City of the Lost by Stephen Blackmoore

I’m kind of torn about this one.  I mean, I thought it was all right, it kept me entertained enough on the train ride to work.  But I feel as if I could have really liked it, and simultaneously I feel like I did really like it, when it was the Sandman Slim series by Richard Kadrey.  Perhaps it’s my fault for reading books of such close genre affiliation and tone so closely back to back.  Or maybe I’ve just OD’d on urban fantasy novels at the moment.  Permit me to explain.

This book examines one Joe Sunday, who’s an enforcer for a gangster in Los Angeles.  So he’s a big thug type guy, he goes around taking care of problems and/or people that his boss tells him to deal with.  Now I’m not necessarily against having a morally dubious protagonist, in fact I’m fairly willing to overlook this.  But Sunday doesn’t really seem to have any sort of inner life which would lead me to root for him exactly.  He doesn’t live by some sort of messed-up Bushido code, his boss didn’t save his life and now he swallows his pride and does the dirty work out of obligation, he’s not stuck in some situation and is now bound to a life of crime, or so on.  He gets pretty well paid and he doesn’t seem to have any particular moral values so even though he could apparently quit any time he doesn’t.

Although maybe that would have been a good idea because on this particular occasion his boss wants some sort of gemstone stolen from an old Italian guy, and Joe’s partner gets killed, and it turns out that the boss actually killed this Italian back in the 1960s and he was old even then, and the stone has magical powers.  Then the Italian guy kills Joe too, but uses the stone to bring him back as a zombie or revenant or something to that effect, but Joe gets the stone, then loses it, and finds out that without it he loses control of himself and eats people’s hearts, and they also turn into zombies and he has to destroy them.

Like every novel of this kind once Joe’s down the rabbit hole he ends up finding all the modern-day cabal of magic practitioners that operate in this day and age, plus the usual complement of monsters, demons, hangers-on, and so forth.  This stone is a real big deal, so he ends up dealing with a bunch of people who want it for one reason or another, and some of them try to help Joe out, others try to cut deals with him, others hunt down his associates like dogs.

There were some things that I did really like about this book.  It had some really engaging action sequences, which I appreciate in a story of this type, and some of the characters were also well developed.  I especially liked Gabriela, who is a former sociology major who has a talent for witchcraft and runs a halfway house for street monsters.  She’s funny enough, but her low-tech approach to magic is pretty inspired.  For instance she has T-shirts that say things like “You can’t see me” or “I am a paramedic”, which actually work on normal people.  She implies that she could do a lot more flashy type stuff but that this is easier.

My real beefs with this book are basically outside the actual story on the page.  If you’re creating a work where the lead character is a bad guy, then there are a couple of things that you can do in order to pad the blow a little or make it work anyway.  Blackmoore didn’t do some of them and made some of the others a little obvious in my opinion.

For instance, you can give the main character some redeeming characteristics, like he’s got some family that he cares about or a cause he believes in or he’s nice to his cat or something like that.  In this case, Sunday doesn’t have any stuff like this at all, he’s a complete mercenary, gets into a fistfight with his only close friend, if he has any family he doesn’t mention them, and so on.   So this is something of a missed opportunity.  He also doesn’t have some of the other sort of virtues that might make you overlook his bad qualities; he’s not really that attractive or charming, and he’s not really smart either, he’s always having things explained to him.  So I think really that the author dropped the ball by making Joe too successfully lowlife and forgetting that you have to actually want to support this guy.

Something else you could do is make the bad guys have a really evil plot that you want them to fail at.  This may be the issue where the narrative failed for me in the biggest way.  Now, the stone may be able to provide immortality if you approach it right, and at the least it’s pretty magical, so it makes sense that all these magicians want to get their hands on it.  But what they are going to do after that point isn’t entirely clear.  The Italian, for instance, wants to get immortality, but he’s already been able to use magic to live a really long time and is essentially indestructible already.  If he gets the stone he’s probably just going to keep doing the same thing he’s been doing already, he’s not going to take over the world.  The same is true for most of the rest of the people who want it.

Joe wants to retrieve the stone because otherwise he is compelled to eat people (and because he may die if someone else uses it), and while I support his decision to try and avoid random killing, he’s not filled with horror and remorse about it like many people in this situation might be.  In fact he seems to consider it something of an inconvenience more than anything, like getting rid of the bodies is such a pain in his ass.  Which I guess it would be, I’ve never tried to stuff an undead hooker into an industrial rock crusher, it’s probably hard on your shoes.  But the point is that Joe’s also not going to use the stone for any good purpose, he’s going to use it for his personal convenience.  So what are the stakes exactly?  Why should I care that Joe gets it rather than one of the other people looking for it?  I want Gabriela to get it, she wants to help all the junkie vampires out.  It’s bad for your narrative if the reader is indifferent to the protagonist’s horrible death.  And even if he does prevail, it’s not going to make a lot of difference to anyone except him.  These low stakes make it hard to root for a bad guy.

One other trick you can do which is used here is to make the bad guys really bad so that your bad protagonist looks better in comparison.  I think some of the other magicians are inexplicably super evil to try and make Joe look better, but it didn’t really work for me because it actually goes too far to be believable even in this universe.  One of them is even said to be a former Nazi.  And while the only thing worse than a Nazi is a Nazi occultist, he’s really given that trait only so you can feel OK about Joe killing him.  I mean, that’s not a part of his character that he has those views necessarily; it’s just a shorthand label so you know this guy’s a bad guy and you should root against him.  The same thing is true of the Italian guy, who everyone is inexplicably making deals with although he inevitably betrays them.  No one would ever trust this guy, since he’s screwed over literally everyone he’s ever met or worked with.  If you’re shooting for immortality then you have to assume that having this reputation is not going to be useful to you.

There are also some illustrations in the book by Sean Phillips, whose work I like, but if you’d told me that these particular drawings were drafts for Sleeper I would have not questioned it.  He’s not exactly breaking out some new character designs here.  I also didn’t really see it adding anything to the story.  Maybe they’re friends?  I’m not actually sure and I don’t care enough to go find out.

To sum up – pretty well written and reasonable enough for what it was, but big metatextual issues prevent me from really recommending it, and I’m not really interested reading the sequel which is heavily suggested.  Really big fans of this genre might appreciate it more than I did, though, and I didn’t hate it, so take that as you will.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

7th Sigma by Steven Gould

7th Sigma is a coming-of-age story examining your everyday typical young man who has a genius level intellect, phenomenal social cunning and goes on spy missions for the government while being raised in a martial arts dojo in a frontier setting filled with robotic monsters.  It’s also a sort-of retelling of Rudyard Kipling’s Kim.  I’d claim expertise in textual analysis, but the truth is it’s been a long time since I read Kim, what clued me in is that the protagonist has the same first name, uses the same last name as a code name when he’s doing secret missions, and there are quotes from Kim in the section headers.  So that sort of tipped me off there, no cunning required.  Nonetheless I enjoyed it for what it was, and for other reasons which I’ll elaborate on as I go.

If you’re at all familiar with statistics then you’ll recognize “sigma” as the symbol for standard deviation.  Something that’s seven standard deviations away from the mean is very rare indeed (exactly how rare is helpfully explained in the introductory quotes).  That said, statistics plays no part in the narrative at all and I’m not sure why it’s the name of the book.  Just lets you know something highly irregular is going on, I guess.

The highly irregular thing is that the American southwest has been infested by these little self-replicating robot bugs.  They fly around and consume all metals, making additional bugs with the materials so consumed.  The bugs are after elemental metal, they don’t rend living beings down for their hemoglobin or anything.  They are dangerous enough anyway, though.  Through trial and error the people around have figured out there are basically four things the bugs do – 1) if any bug is destroyed, every bug in a pretty big radius comes to consume it, swarming erratically and moving through any objects (or living creatures) in the way; 2) swarm to and consume anything emitting EM radiation; 3) consume free metals; 4) sit around and charge their batteries with photovoltaic wings.  So although they’ve got the power to kill people they’re mostly background, and there’s been enough time passed since their appearance that everyone’s mostly used to them by now.

The bugs have completely taken over New Mexico and Arizona, parts of Utah, Nevada, Texas, some of the northern Mexican states of Sonora and Chihuahua, and possibly a little more.  It’s not explicitly set forth anywhere.  The US Army has set up a barrier which they claim contains the infestation, but one of the characters claims that’s bullshit, that he was with the Army when they tried to fight the bugs originally and they never were able to stop the outbreak.  Of course, he might be wrong.  In any event, the infestation isn’t actively spreading anymore, the bugs’ territory is clearly established.

One of the things I like very much about this book is the care that Gould has to just let this develop.  Various characters have different theories about the nature and cause of the bugs.  Most people think that it was an industrial accident caused by experiments in mining technology that went awry, although some think it was a terrorist attack.  Others believe that it wasn’t terrestrial in origin at all, although whether or not it was deliberate in that case isn’t established either.  Gould has enough confidence in his writing to just let this be the backdrop without throwing in someone or other to give a lot of random exposition.  (That said there are clearly some people who know more than others and this knowledge can be costly.)

I also really like the fact that he’s done his homework and it’s there on the page.  I guess that the states of New Mexico and Arizona have been dissolved, and the whole zone is once again a federal territory.  The day to day workings of the territory aren’t really elaborated on, but at one point some characters are discussing a particularly nasty court case that started in the territory and worked its way up into the federal court system, and that the attorney for one of these parties was sanctioned under Rule 11.  It’s hard for me to overstate how happy this made me, since that’s exactly how such a case would progress and Gould even cited the right rules.  It’s far more typical for authors to mess up jurisdictions and procedural rules than not, since it’s usually not significant to the plot.  But Gould went the extra mile here.  I also know a little bit about livestock and gyrojets, both of which match what is said about them.  I don’t know a whole lot about aikido or building adobe ovens, but I’m more inclined to trust him on those matters since he’s proven himself trustworthy in world building.

Something else that is nice is that people in the Territory are still US citizens; you can move more or less freely in and out of the checkpoints.  If you’re coming in then they make you sign a release and watch a horrific video of the bugs killing somebody, but it’s not a horrible dystopia if you live there, you can just leave whenever you want to and come back as you like (assuming you can afford it).  Kimble Monroe, the hero of the book, used to visit his relatives in the Midwest all the time, so he’s familiar with television and video games and all that sort of thing.  And supplies like ceramics and fiber composites come in too, although it’s not entirely clear what the Territory produces in trade.  But most of the people who live there are still there because they want to be.  There’s also a good examination of what kind of people might choose to live this way, you’ve got some regular people, some crazy survivalists and malcontents, and then some well-organized religious extremists who are fairly well adapted for this sort of lifestyle and think that they should run the place.  Some of this is a little straw mannish, but not to a great degree.  And one thing I did really like is that they’re talking about making Bible study mandatory in the public school, a proposal which goes down 3-2 after an impassioned speech by Kim’s sensei in defense of the First Amendment, but that’s not what swayed the board – they were all in favor of the proposal really but couldn’t agree on what translation to use.  Little details like this are really nice to me, since it’s how real people actually behave.

Kim’s father had to leave the Territory and have a pacemaker installed, which means he can’t ever go back.  Kim’s mother is dead, and since his father is a mean drunk Kim sees no reason to go live with him, so the book starts with him at age 11, living as a street kid and trying to avoid the law, which would forcibly reunite him with his father whether he wants to go or not.  Enter the aikido master Ruth, who’s starting a dojo in the territory as a means to recover from her failed marriage, is impressed by the martial arts skills he already learned at the local YMCA equivalent, and takes him in as student and foster child.

At this point I’ll observe that the structure of the book is more of a series of vignettes in the life of Kim as he grows up.  The first section takes place when he’s roughly 11, the second at about 14-15, and the third at around age 17.  In addition to Ruth he runs into a federal marshal early on, who recognizes his intelligence and ability and uses him as an asset in law enforcement missions, which mostly involve him sneaking around and/or spying on people.  The crimes they’re investigating are pretty pedestrian and not at all outlandish.  For instance, there’s people involved in smuggling methamphetamines in from Mexico, in running gyro-jet composite guns in from the US, and just generally being bandits.  Kim also references a bunch of other adventures he has in between these that we never find out all the details for, for instance he’s recovering from nearly being killed by a group that sounds like that FLDS sect run by Warren Jeffs as the third section starts.  So if you’re looking for some sort of tight, overarching plot building to a huge climax then this isn’t the book for you.  It’s more of a study of these characters as they do various things.  However there are some really good mysteries as well, and a sense of discovery, such as when Kim and some other guys are tracking a pack of sheep-killing feral dogs and they gradually discover that one of the dogs may not actually be a dog at all, which leads to a question about whether the robotic bugs are the only weird thing going on out there.

I’m not going to say that Kim isn’t realistic exactly, since he does do a lot of things that a normal person his age would do, and he’s used to having to work hard in the dojo/farm.  But I will say that he seems sort of implausibly awesome and poised.  He’s smarter than everyone else, he’s got infallible social awareness, his martial arts training allows him to kick ass at will, he’s sufficiently mysterious and alluring that some cute girl who’s taking a break after her freshman year at Berkley wants to give him an erotic massage, etc.  He does seem to have an inexplicable attraction for adventure and danger.  It’s more fair to say that Kim would be at home in a 1950s boys’ adventure serial.  Perhaps, in fact, that’s what it is.

Also, I’m disappointed that given the option to attend Rice University he nonetheless decided to go with Stanford, although doubtless the erotic massage girl had something to do with that choice, and that is the sort of consideration that a 17-year old would of course have.

So I found this book highly readable and I really liked the characters and the setting.  There would seem to be an inevitable sequel hook here, which I basically disapprove of in the sense that if there’s more plot I wish this book was just longer rather than just ending on the note that it does.  Nonetheless this was a lot of fun when approached in the intended spirit and it’s a great way to kick off 2012.